Student competitions offer real world learning opportunities

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Concrete Canoe team
Each year, Sac State students—such as the concrete canoe team (above)—take part in competitions against their peers from other universities. In addition to the chance to bring home bragging rights for Sac State, the contests offer hands-on applications of classroom concepts.

What do a concrete canoe and a medical device that tests newborns for jaundice have in common? They’re both products made by Sac State students. And they’re the result of student vs. student competitions that provide hands-on context to material learned in the classroom.

Beyond the books

For months, civil engineering students calculated, sanded and constructed a canoe out of concrete designed to glide across the water and a steel bridge able to stand up against strength tests. Both were showcased at the annual American Society of Civil Engineers’ Mid-Pacific Regional Conference in April.

The contests started out as ways for students to develop an understanding of construction material—like concrete or steel—that they will use out in the field after graduation, says Ben Fell, chair of the Department of Civil Engineering and faculty advisor for the steel bridge team. He says the competition process also allows students to discover valuable lessons outside their coursework.

“Students learn the fact that not everything you design on paper is very practical to build,” he says.

But engineering concepts such as spatial constraints, bolt connections and material behavior are not the only skills students learn from the experience.

“They take away lessons on teamwork, budgeting and project management, which compliment classroom learning,” Fell says.

And buoyed by donor support, student teams are able to travel to the contests where they test their knowledge in practice against students from other schools as Khaled Kanaan, civil engineering major and captain of the steel bridge team, can attest.

“We greatly appreciate the support of our alumni who provide us with the opportunity to compete at events that allow us to meet and learn from students from other universities,” says Kanaan, who expects to graduate in 2017.

Getting down to tech business

Not all student competitions are so structured. Some are all about the possibilities.

What if there was a stethoscope capable of providing safe, and affordable, monitoring and diagnosis of contagious patients, even when healthcare workers are covered head-to-toe in Ebola-type protective suits? Or a device that allows doctors to screen bilirubin levels in newborns with jaundice without frequent blood-draws? 

There are. And both products earned Sac State crowd favorite awards at the CSU Innovation Challenge (I-Corps), a program that provides opportunities for students to take biotechnology research projects to the marketplace.

Formerly known as the Idea to Product Challenge, I-Corps teams consist of students from engineering/science and business/MBA/entrepreneurial programs. Equipped with an idea and a $2,500 National Science Foundation grant, they interview customers, potential partners, life science industry advisors and mentors to determine if their product can help solve a biomedical problem. 

Warren Smith, electrical and electronic engineering professor and the team’s academic and technical advisor, says establishing team chemistry can be an early challenge to overcome and a real-world learning opportunity.

“Engineering students may want to talk about the gadgets and computer software, but the business students might not know anything about that,” says Smith. “They have to be a collective and collaborative team in a very short time. There is a wonderful cross-learning aspect and I think it has been very valuable for students.” 

The final weekend comprises product concept presentations where teams justify the problem-solution aspect to an evaluation panel. Team success is judged by the amount of learning they acquire over the months-long challenge. 

The I-Corps experience helps students take the next step in their development, Smith says.

“I’ve had previous students tell me that when employers see the I-Corps participation on their resumes, they want to know more about the process,” he says. “It’s very helpful when they look for a job.”

Real-world learning opportunities from competitions help make students career-ready. To support these and other student competitions, contact the Office of University Development at (916) 278-6989

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